/** disarm.armstra: 788.0 **/
** Topic: (Mines) Cambodia's torment **
** Written 8:12 AM Jun 30, 1997 by firstname.lastname@example.org in cdp:disarm.armstra **
From: David Isenberg <email@example.com>
For personal, noncommecial use only.
Children are everywhere in Cambodia. Some are cheeky and precocious, selling newspapers to foreigners as they tumble out of the airport.
Some are more solemn, collecting drink cans to recycle, or going about their own secret business, as children do.
But the young faces that stare from faded photos in Tuol Sleng are skinny, confused and frightened.
Tuol Sleng is a school in Phnom Penh, converted by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 into a prison and torture centre. One wall is covered in photos of kids no more than 15 years old.
They each have a number hung around their neck. Soon after the photos are taken, they will be dead from starvation, or murdered.
United Nations-sponsored elections in 1993 brought peace - of a kind - to a country that has been ravaged by civil war for most of the past 30 years. But war still echoes throughout Cambodia.
Nine-year-old Meak At is on a slat bed in Kampot Hospital. He had dug up a landmine while playing in front of his house the day before. It blew up in his face, and now he is blind, has lost several fingers and may lose his arm.
Nobody is sure who put the landmine there. It could have been the Khmer Rouge, or Cambodian government troops, or the Vietnamese, all of whom have fought backwards and forwards over the area.
Years of forced migration, and a systematic attack on family, cultural and religious institutions have produced a deeply traumatised society. Family groups have been split up, trucked across the country and deposited in the middle of settlements carved out of the jungle.
Others came back from refugee camps on the Thai border to find their families gone, their villages flattened, and their fields full of mines and unexploded shells. In desperation, they have become refugees in their own country, living in shanty towns around Phnom Penh.
Cambodia has a lot of problems, but one of its most fundamental is providing a safe place for these people to live.
The apparent implosion of the Khmer Rouge leadership last week has removed the last faction in the country that has been actively laying mines, and the Cambodian government has framed legislation for a total ban.
But an estimated four to six million landmines are still littered indiscriminately across the country. They are planted along village paths, in rice paddies, around temples. No one ever made any maps, and when the rains come, some of the plastic-bodied mines are washed out of the ground and float across the countryside.
Mine-laying became part of the culture, said Ieng Mouly, Minister of Information and chairman of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC). "Unfortunately, they work - they are cheap, effective and terrifying.'' Most of the mines are Russian, Vietnamese or Chinese, costing just a few dollars to make.
Mouly himself is a lucky man. Several years ago, he took his wife and mother-in-law on a tour of mine-clearing work in the south of the country. During a recent visit, he was horrified to see an area they had walked over had since been confirmed as a live minefield, and had been roped off for clearing.
The work is excruciatingly tedious. "We get a report, like so many people and so many cows have been blown up near a village,'' said Major Mark Sheppard, an Australian Army advisor with CMAC. The minefield boundaries are then marked out, and the two-man clearing teams start work, one armed with a probe for tripwires, and the other with a metal detector.
According to CMAC's progress figures, it has cleared an average 1.2 square KM of minefields a month this year.
But that's only part of the problem. For every landmine, there are an estimated six to seven unexploded bombs, rockets and mortar shells. Unexploded 500 and 2000-pound bombs, droppped in 30-ton loads by United States B-52's during its secret bombing campaign in 1969-70, are still being dug out of the rice paddies.
A couple of US Army cadets from Westpoint, in Cambodia for three weeks as part of a cultural awareness program, are given the opportunity to blow the demolition charges on one of the bombs while we watch.
The US also dropped tons of fragmentation "bomblets'' over Eastern Cambodia. The bomblets, roughly the size and shape of a grapefruit, arm themselves by spinning as they fall, and are designed to explode over troops, showering them in lethal shrapnel. Unfortunately, up to 30 percent failed to fully arm, and are now scattered across the countryside.
The United States has now agreed to come clean about a bombing campaign that initially not even its own Congress knew about. CMAC will shortly receive a set of CDROMs that document all US bombing missions over Cambodia, including bombing of Japaneses forces during the Second World War.
Mechanical mine clearers - basically armoured bulldozers - are also being trailled to speed up the clearing process, but they have a number of problems. While they are faster, they can miss up to 10 percent of mines, and cannot be used at all in some terrain.
They are also four to eight times more expensive than manual demining. CMAC's funds are almost entirely hard currency from overseas aid - much of it from Australia - and by employing Cambodians for demining work, CMAC is providing a direct injection of cash into a shattered economy.
Deminers earn $US160 month, compared to a soldier or civil servant's $20-30. It's a good job, and many who take it up are ex government soldiers, or Khmer Rouge defectors. Sometimes they are clearing mines they laid themselves.
And while the work can be tedious, because it is strictly supervised by United Nations technical advisors, it is far more safe than being a soldier.
Soldiers tend to find mines by stepping on them, and a visit to Phnom Penh's main military hospital is a descent into a quiet, desperate torment. More than 70 percent of the patients are mine victims, with multiple amputations or blindess.
Because there are no rehabilitation facilities, they stay in the hospital until they are pushed out. So do their families, who have nowhere else to go.
Some soldiers have been there for so long that they have added new babies to their families. While following us through the hospital, an Australian Army adviser stared in disbelief as a doctor told him that the power had been cut off for ten days. It explained the raw sewage that flowed over the floors - the water pumps had stopped working, and the toilets had overflowed.
The hospital receives little from foreign aid organisations, who traditionally shy away from the military. Australia's aid is via the Australian Defence Force, who have helped to build surgical incinerators and put in generators.
All of the demining work is done against the background of a country slipping back into feudalism, and perhaps civil war.
Stand-offs between the heavily-armed bodyguards of Cambodia's two prime ministers are becoming more frequent. Shooting broke out last week, and the US ambassador scored a rocket through the window of his residence.
CMAC itself nearly triggered off civil war at the end of May, when technical advisors were training deminers to use demolition charges 20 KM outside the capital. Jumpy bodyguards thought the charges were the start of a mortar attack.
But the mine-clearing goes on, always with armed guards stationed close by. The current estimate for the country to be cleared is about twenty years, and the pressure for land is so great that sometimes people are camped behind the deminers, waiting to plant crops.
Elections scheduled for next year could yet again plunge Cambodia into chaos, says one Western diplomat. "We have no idea how it is going to pan out . . . we will have to wait and see . . .''
(1997 David Syme & Co Ltd
David Isenberg, Senior Research Analyst
CDI's ONLY genuine former enlisted man
Center for Defense Information
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